The Objects Conservation Laboratory cares for three-dimensional artworks from across the Museum’s curatorial areas, nearly one-third of the MFA collections. Objects conservators are responsible for the long-term preservation of such varied material culture as ancient Egyptian mummies, Japanese sculptures, and contemporary installations, representing the breadth of human creativity from all cultures and periods.
The daily work of the lab includes careful examination, documentation, and treatment to prepare works of art for exhibition and loan. Conservators also carry out assessments for new acquisitions, incoming loans, and rotations or installations of objects in the galleries. Technical studies of artworks are undertaken to answer questions of authenticity and add to the body of knowledge in general. Staff utilize advanced imaging techniques, such a digital x-radiography, multispectral imaging, 3-D scanning, photogrammetry, and reflectance transformation imaging, to discover and share new information about the condition of artworks or how they may have appeared long ago. Recommendations for safe display methods are provided after evaluation of the specific needs of individual objects. Some material types, such as silver or plastics, are vulnerable to condition changes without protection. The lab has been a leader in researching the role of pollutants in the museum environment and their impact on the long-term preservation of materials.
Preparation of more than 260 ancient Greek objects for reinstallation
Examination and conservation of a Chinese polychrome sculpture
Relocation and treatment of a colossal Roman sculpture from the second century A.D.
Conservation and structural stabilization of two Etruscan sarcophagi
Relocation of one of the largest sculptures of the Pyramid Age
Conservation treatment of Late Archaic and Early Classical ceramic vessels
The Objects Lab traces its history to 1929, when William J. Young came from England to found the Objects Conservation and Scientific Research Laboratory. During his tenure, Young pioneered dramatic restoration techniques and contributed immeasurably to the understanding of the methods of manufacture and the materials used in works of art by systematic scientific analysis. He also instituted some of the earliest international symposia devoted to conservation science. The early work of the Research Lab focused on the vast number of archaeological objects coming to the Museum directly from excavations in Egypt and Nubia through the Harvard University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition (1904–1947). Many of these works were treated in the field as they were uncovered or shortly after arrival at the MFA, but a century later, there remains much work to do to stabilize, understand, and reconstruct important artifacts from these excavation.
The bulk of the Classical collection (Greek and Roman antiquities) also came into the collection in the early twentieth century, including marble and bronze sculpture, ceramics, coins, and gems. Conservation work is often focused on re-treatment of works that were previously restored. For example, some ceramics that appear intact have been reconstructed from fragments many decades ago. Over time, adhesives become unstable and such artifacts need to be disassembled and reassembled with modern, stable adhesives, a time-consuming process. Ancient objects may also have chemical susceptibilities, such as soluble salts from burial, previous treatments, or poor storage or display materials, that require desalination or careful environmental controls. In addition, multispectral and visible-induced luminescence imaging techniques are utilized to gain a broader understanding of the full range of polychromy on ancient sculpture.
The MFA also holds a large collection of three-dimensional objects from Asia, including sculpture and decorative arts, ceramics, and swords. The core body of Japanese art was collected in the 1880’s and arrived in Boston in the 1890’s. These acquisitions marked the earliest instances of objects restoration at the MFA, when Okakura Tenshin, the first curator of Chinese and Japanese art, invited specialists from Japan to work on the newly formed collections. Asian artworks include a range of object types and materials, from lacquer to swords to Buddhist sculpture and Noh masks. Objects conservators work to understand and respect these traditions and materials while preserving the objects in the context of an encyclopedic art museum.
The lab is also responsible for the care of the MFA's three-dimensional works from the Americas and Europe. The wide range of materials (pre-Colombian ceramics, Native American basketry, ship models, stained glass, and modern design) provide a myriad of challenges for conservation and treatment. The extensive collection of silver on view, some on open display, requires careful cleaning informed by research and scientific analysis to understand original surface treatments and appropriate appearance. As with the other collecting areas, the conservation of these objects also often involves re-treatment of old restorations.
Newer collecting areas, though smaller in the numbers of objects, present new challenges and complexities. Contemporary art and time-based media works, which incorporate video, audio, computer components, or electronics, require new tools and new types of thinking about what is being preserved and for how long. Artists’ use of non-traditional, found, or ephemeral materials and installations may not have been created with the idea of long-term preservation. Conservators often work in consultation with living artists to understand their artistic intent and to make appropriate decisions. Outside the galleries, staff are also responsible for the care of outdoor sculptures that adorn the grounds of the Museum, addressing the effects of exposure to pollution and extreme environmental conditions, from snow and ice in winter to intense heat and ultraviolet radiation in summer.
Objects conservators have particular areas of expertise, but the scale of the Museum’s collections and their broad range of materials mean that conservators have to be flexible and constantly learning. The care of human artistic endeavor from across cultures is an awesome and humbling responsibility, a reminder of what a great privilege it is to be tasked as temporary caretakers of the world’s cultural heritage.